Adventures in Storytelling

The adventures of The Patchwork Players, Patti Christensen and James Nelson-Lucas, as they travel the dimensions of time and space, telling their tales

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Summer for Art

On July, 11th we performed at The New Children's Museum.: in San Diego:

We have done programs for The J. Paul Getty Museum, in LA, as well as at the San Diego Museum of Art, and the La Habra Children's Museum, always striving to bring art to life for the audience. We have developed some interesting ways of working with art. It's always different everywhere we go, and we always learn something new. Here is what Patti and James have to say about their process and experience at The New Children's Museum.

We were asked to create a storytelling experience using an amazing large mural/interactive piece of art by Mark Mulroney entitled '“Don’t Put That in Your Mouth” and other good advice from my mother'. This piece is often referred to as The Shadow Puppet Theater by most visitors.

The installation is huge, Covering two walls, and a carpet on the floor. It is full of all kinds of strange, funny and wonderful images. Such as giant hands and shadow puppet-like figures, ladders, cats holding umbrellas, twisted tress, and window that could be showing us the contents of a giant’s tummy….our thought was “Okay, there has GOT to be some stories to be found there!” And we went to work, looking for the stories,.

First, as in any art piece, we looked at it, both in person, and in photos. Our brains started churning out ideas. We found, in our research, that the piece was inspired by thinking about strange things kids thought might live under the stairs. Hmmmm, okay. Lots of shadows, including a projection screen and a place that kids could create their own shadow puppets and then try them out in the light. Interesting! What about those cats? And the trees? Maybe the shadows are what is important. Or maybe the theme of being inside either the giant’s tummy or the cat’s tummy. Wow! A lot of different possible directions that we could go.

There are a couple of main ways to go with melding art and stories. One is to see what already written stories the piece reminds you of, and the other is to create something new, either with the audience or beforehand by ourselves. We thought we would try a combination. Definitely, we would spend some time helping the kids be “art detectives” and take a lot closer look at the piece than most children are apt to do. We often see kids look at a roomful of art in 10 seconds and then declare they are bored, and ready to move on. They need to learn how to slow down and really be with the art. We help them to to be 'Art Detectives', and soak the art in.

Then we began our search, and harvesting of already existing folktales or literally stories that might fit in here. The first one we thought of was about a contest between two artists. One artist works hard, and paints fantastic pictures on a wall, while the other naps. At the end, the napping artist, with his blank wall, uses a mirror to “copy” other other artists' work. Thus, fooling the judge. But the lazy artist learned his lesson. Next time, do the work. That story could work well with the great art, but a blank wall as well.

Next we thought of one of our favorite stories, about a princess who asked for all the cats in the kingdom for her birthday. Every kind of cat! She received thousands of cats, which eventually needed to be cleared out of the castle. This was done by inventing the “catapult” and sending the cats on an airborne trip out of the castle. The catapult sent the first batch flying, MEEEOOOW, and landed on their heads, BUMP. But the next ones figured out how to land on their feet. And that is how, even today, if a cat falls out of a tree, they land on all four feet. This fits in with our cat theme, and we would be able to use the shadow puppet project to show the catapult and cats flying through the art. Good!

Alright, what else? Oh, the Japanese folktale called 'The Boy Who Drew Cats', where a boy only loved drawing cats everywhere. He has several adventures , until he is finally sent to stay at a haunted temple with blank, white walls (there is that wall again) on which, he of course draws cats. He goes to sleep and then in the night hears a terrible ruckus, and when he comes out in the morning he is surprised to see blank walls, with no cats, a servant comes in saying he saw and giant rat running out of the temple, and down the road screaming. It had been chased away by hundreds of cats. The boy is a hero, the temple is saved and he is made the resident artist where he got to draw cats all day long.

Great, we have our stories (along with a bunch of appropriate props) and so headed off the the museum to see what we would create together with the children.

Thea art detective portion went very well, with one big surprise: these little nondescript blobby guys, which neither of us could figure out What in the world they were, we got an answer. One little boy looked at them and announced He’s the Hot Dog Boy. And all agreed yes, indeed he was. With him as the main character in place, we created the following group story using the art as our jumping off point and focus.

This is the story we, and the kids, made up:

Once upon a time there was a little Hot Dog Boy who was off walking in the scary woods. AS he walked along, it got scarier, and scarier. Suddenly, he was very surprised to look up and see a giant hand with a flying cat on it. He was so scared that he ran away as fast as he could Then, he saw in front of him, a ladder, and he thought, “Oh good, I can escape by the ladder”, but at the top of the ladder, he saw a giant ready to eat him. So he turned around and ran the other way there. There he was very surprised to see a cat holding an umbrella because it was raining so hard. The Hot Dog Boy asked the cat where he could hide, and the cat told him,”You can hide in my tummy”. After along time, the giant passed on by, and the cat sneezed the Hot Dog Boy out of his tummy and they all lived happily ever after.

In an alternative version, Hot Dog Boy was looking for his mother and found her in the cat’s tummy, where he rescued her by tickling the cat’s nose until he sneezed the mama out. She got flowers from the Hot Dog Boy and they both lived happily every after. (Do you detect a theme here?)

All in all, the folktale stories went well, and creating the Adventures of Hot Dog Boy was a great time for all. Several kids and parents remarked that they had a great time, and one boy told us that he was going to go look for stories in the other art at the museum.
We had a wonderful time, and, as always, are so pleased at what happens when you get an audience to slow down and look and listen, using their imagination, for the stories.

It seems to be a summer of art for us. We are just finishing our library Summer Reading program. Every year, the libraries have a different theme for the program. This year it was 'Be Creative'. So we developed a program we call 'Art to Life'. We traveled to libraries all over Southern California. The 'Art to Life' program is a lot like what we did for the New Children' Museum. Except, we got to bring along a bunch of art of our choosing. Paintings, sculptures, masks, and cloth art. Again, we helped kids create new stories from looking at the art, we tell them to be 'Art Detectives'. One of the pieces was a painting of a beach scene. When we ask the kids about what is going on in the picture, they always say there are sharks in the water. Kids are fascinated by sharks. They came up with some great ideas. Not surprising. Most of children's play is centered around creating stories. And, of course we told some classic tales that we thought of when we saw the art. Rapunzel (thanks Karen Dietz for that piece), The Man Who Lost his Shadow, and, How Maui Caught the Sun. We can hardly wait to hear what the theme for next year will be.

Just because the Library Summer Reading program is almost over, does not mean we are done working. Next month, each of us will be doing some storytelling in Canada. Patti telling tales around the campfire in, Whitehorse Yukon, on the west coast, And James, teaching, and telling in Montreal, near the east coast, for the Anticipation convention. It will be great fun, telling to international audiences.

Remember to keep an eye on our calendar. We are always adding new stuff. For example: The Story Lovers World radio show. Hosted by Storyteller Jackie Baldwin. All SLW programs are on Sundays, 5-6 p.m. Pacific time, KSVY 91.3 FM, Sonoma, CA
After adjusting for your time zone, go to
Click on Listen Now! in the upper banner
You should be switched immediately into the program in progress.

Storytelling Tip:
Stories aren't about what happened. But rather, who it happened to.